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Social Networking Comes to the Data Center

By Paul Rubens (Send Email)
Posted Nov 5, 2008


Paul Rubens
Millions of dollars must be lost every month by organizations throughout the world as employees mess about on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites instead of getting on with their work. It's no surprise then that an estimated 25 percent of U.S. businesses block employee access to these sites, according to a survey consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas carried out earlier this year.

Think Facebook is all fun and games? Find out ways to turn a distraction into significant value-add for your enterprise.

But it may be that these companies are being short-sighted. There's a strong argument to be made that allowing social networking in a controlled fashion could actually improve the efficiency and productivity of staff working in an organization, or just a small subset of an organization, such as the IT department. For a globally dispersed organizations with data centers in the United States, Europe and the Far East, Facebook may also make management considerably easier.

The reason social networking applications can be helpful in a data center environment is that many people who work in them have either specialist skills or detailed knowledge about specific systems. A great deal of time can be wasted unnecessarily when work is duplicated or mistakes are repeated because communication between data center staff is inadequate. But how is a technician in Mumbai embarking on a project to know that a colleague in the Seattle data center might have completed a similar job a few weeks before, and that a quick phone call could result in information being shared that could save hours or troubleshooting?

"You often find that even in a small group like the data center staff in an organization, there are people with expertise that is not known about, or there are hidden people who hardly anyone else know exists, or certain people who all information flows through," said Carol Rozwell, a vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Group. "You'd imagine that in a group of say 40 people everyone would know each other, but very often they don't."

What's needed is a way of making it easy for data center staff to know what their colleagues have been doing, and whom to ask for help or advice. In the past, many organizations have attempted to do this by building skills databases or using knowledge management systems, but these frequently fail to produce the desired results because, to put it bluntly, people can't be bothered to add information or update them. And that's because they are unfamiliar, unattractive and not very useful — like a deserted shopping mall at night.

Social networking systems can help because they make it much easier and more attractive for staff to make sure the information contained in their profiles is up to date. That's because consumer-oriented tools like Facebook have to look good to thrive, and since they are part of the fabric of many people's daily lives, they are constantly visited and refreshed. Like instant messaging, many people learn about social networking in a consumer context but realize that it can provide many benefits in their work life as well.

"Usually at work we have contact with a small number of people we know well, or we are put in contact with people that those people know," said Rozwell. "In general then, we rarely move beyond two and a half degrees of separation, but when you use a social network in an organization, if you find that someone has the expertise you need but they are many degrees of separation away, you still have the affiliation of being part of the same organization."

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Some organizations worry about potential problems associated with letting staff use Facebook to establish a workplace network — even a small one that might be used by only data center workers. These concerns generally revolve about security — the possibility that confidential, sensitive or libelous information could leak outside the organization and that data is stored externally — or simply the fact that employees are using a tool for work purposes over which the organization has no control.

Something else to bear in mind is that with a public tool like Facebook, there is no automatic way to ensure an employee who leaves or is sacked is removed from the network.

One possible solution is to use a business "overlay" to Facebook, enabling business and personal social network usage on Facebook to remain separate. WorkLight, a New York based company, has a server-based product called WorkBook that does just this. To use WorkBook, employees use their existing Facebook account (or sign up to a new one) and then install the WorkBook application as they would any other Facebook application. They then run WorkBook by signing in using their corporate username and password. From that point on they are logged on to what appears to be a standard Facebook page. However, the information on this page is actually stored and served from within the organization. It is accessible only inside the corporate firewall. WorkBook can also integrate with other corporate applications, giving employees direct access to data (if their corporate credentials have the appropriate privileges). Administrators have control over what appears in WorkBook, and any employee that leaves the organization is automatically locked out of it once his or her corporate user name and password are revoked.

The benefits to the day-to-day running of the data centers in an organization from operating a social networking system — using a public network or an overlay to one of them — are soft and difficult to quantify. Social networks provide a proven and popular way for people to discover each other and communicate, so it's likely many organizations will find it valuable for socially networked data center staff to be able to tap into the knowledge of colleagues — often in remote data centers — which would otherwise have been wasted. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Do you want staff spending hours trying to configure a server when someone else in another data center in your organization could tell them how to do it right in a matter of moments — if only they knew that that person existed? If not, social networking in the data center may be the answer.

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